M A I N   N E W S

Ground ZERO
Will Manmohan in his bold new avatar deliver?
Raj Chengappa

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not particularly known for his eloquence. Yet when he does speak extempore, as he did while interacting with editors of the country’s leading dailies (including The Tribune) and magazines on Monday morning, he demonstrated coherence, cogency and candour.

It was about time he did do so. For although he is now the longest serving Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, an achievement by itself, his Independence Day address to the nation reflected just how defensive he had become of his Government’s performance. Whether on Naxalism, the unrest in Kashmir, engaging Pakistan, shoring up agriculture or even preparations for the Commonwealth Games, Manmohan was clearly on the back-foot sounding almost apologetic. An impression was fast gaining ground that the Government he headed was adrift as was his leadership.

The 80-minute dialogue with editors was Manmohan unplugged like rarely before. It was the Prime Minister’s way of showcasing that he was very much in command; that he still had a mind of his own on key issues; and that he was unafraid to articulate his convictions even if some of it was in variance with the Congress.

It signalled a new assertiveness by the Prime Minister symbolised best by his declaration that he was “not thinking of retiring.” That he was here to stay and rule. That the differences on issues among his cabinet colleagues was “only part of a democratic process” and had not let to a paralysis in the decision making process. This is a bold, brave new Manmohan that the nation is seeing.

Manmohan corrected the conjecture gaining traction that in his second tenure he was just marking time till Rahul Gandhi was ready to take control. Even as he allowed Rahul to bask in the afterglow of the recent cancellation of the Vedanta bauxite mining project in Orissa following tribal protests, the Prime Minister made it clear at the meet that he was not going to encourage environmental activism that would come in the way of poverty alleviation. Industry would be happy to hear that there would be no return to the “licence Raj” days on such issues.

On the big two internal security issues — Naxalism and Kashmir — Manmohan admitted that there were no “quick-fix” solutions and that the Central Government and the states involved were “learning by doing” and there was “no royal road to success”. Significantly, Manmohan admitted that his government was still “groping for a solution” and that lack of patience would be “counterproductive” to finding one. He showed no diffidence just a steely resolve to persevere in finding lasting solutions without being hustled and hassled by public criticism.

On engaging Pakistan, despite the embarrassing setback during the meeting of the two foreign ministers, Manmohan was clear that he would like the dialogue process to continue. He frankly admitted that the “no-talks” strategy after 26/11 had run its course and the “amount of leverage” that India had with the US and Europe had diminished over a period of time. The big message: Manmohan hadn’t given up on Pakistan - as yet.

Manmohan’s bold new avatar was evident when he took on the Supreme Court over its recent order to distribute food grains stored in go downs free of cost to prevent it from rotting and going waste. He advised the Court not to get “into the realm of policy formulation” and firmly pointed out the impracticality of distributing grains to feed 37 per cent of the population that are below-the -poverty line apart from the danger of such a move damaging the agricultural economy.

An assertive and vocal prime minister is welcome but Manmohan must be as bold and decisive in his actions in the coming months.

(Beginning today, Ground Zero will give an insight into critical issues facing the nation and the world)





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